Last Sunday we welcomed Easter with glad alleluias and proclaiming “He is Risen,” but this was not the case that first Easter morning. The last the disciples knew of Jesus he was dead and in a tomb. They were alone, afraid, confused and remained behind locked doors. Jesus had told them that he would return and they had seen him raise Lazarus from the dead, but now Jesus was dead. How would it be possible for him to return? They had not understood nor had they believed. That first Easter morning the women had gone to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Mary Magdalene’s first response is one of consternation, because she assumed that Jesus’ body has been moved since it is missing from the tomb. Then she went to tell the disciples that Jesus’ body was missing. Peter and “the other disciple” ran to the tomb and saw for themselves that it was true. They had seen the linen cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head and body lying there with no body to be found. But still Peter does not believe. It is only the beloved disciple that sees and believes. Then, a bit later that day, Mary Magdalene came to the disciples once again, this time breathless with excitement, and told them, “I have seen the Lord.”
Despite the proclamation by Mary Magdalene to the disciples that she had seen the Lord, the disciples remained behind locked doors. We might expect that the disciples would be celebrating by now. Instead, we find them huddled behind locked doors. John says that the doors were locked for fear of the Jews. Certainly they were afraid of the Jewish leaders who were behind the plot to kill Jesus. They were likely afraid for their own lives, afraid of their uncertain futures. And also they may have been afraid of Jesus. After all, they had failed him miserably. Peter had denied him three times, and the rest had deserted him (except for “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” who had been at the cross and had taken Jesus’ mother into his home). Perhaps the last person the disciples wanted to meet on that evening was Jesus, risen from the dead to confront them with their failures. While the locked doors reflect the fear of the disciples, they also demonstrate the power of the risen Christ, who cannot be contained by a tomb nor a locked door, And it is through that locked door that Jesus came to the disciples. For some reason (we are not told why), Thomas was absent and missed out on this first Sunday evening encounter with the risen Jesus. Yet he hears from them the same proclamation they heard from Mary Magdalene: “We have seen the Lord.”. Like Thomas, the disciples were not immediately transformed by Mary’s proclamation of the good news. They remained behind locked doors, still fearful. Like Thomas, the disciples only respond with joy to Jesus’ presence after he shows them his hands and his side. Although “doubting Thomas” gets his reputation from this story, his response of unbelief is not unique, but instead is typical of the disciples. Thomas asks for nothing more than the others have already received: to see Jesus, wounds and all. Thomas placed conditions on his willingness to believe: “ unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” How often do we approach our faith in the same way as Thomas with conditions? “If I have historical proof…If I have a sign…If near-death experiences can verify…If God would do…If Jesus would cure…Then I will believe in Christ…Then I will know that God exists…Then I will know that there is life after death…Then I will make a commitment of faith.” We replicate the doubting of Thomas each time we establish for Christ how Christ needs to operate in our lives and each time we ground our faith in what we demand from God, rather than in what God does in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. In Thomas’ case, the wonder of this story is that Jesus shows up again one week later to provide exactly what Thomas needs. They were gathered once again behind locked doors, suggesting that Thomas was not the only one still needing reassurance that Jesus had in fact conquered death. Despite Thomas’ conditions for belief , he never physically examines or inspects Jesus’ wound. Instead when Thomas sees Jesus he needs no further assurance and he responds with the highest Christological confession of anyone in the Gospel. His is not simply a doctrinal confession, but a statement of trust and relationship: “My Lord and my God!” Jesus’ response to Thomas is not a rebuke, but rather a blessing for all those who will come to believe without having had the benefit of a flesh-and-blood encounter with Jesus. Indeed, John goes on to declare that this is the very purpose of this gospel, addressing all of us who have not seen but have heard this testimony: “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”
The Easter season of alleluias can sometimes seem to leave little room for our doubts, our fears, and our pain. We tend to forget that for the first disciples, there was fear, doubt, pain, and confusion before there was understanding and joy at what had taken place on that day. Are we so different today, even after we’ve heard — just one week ago — that Jesus is risen from the grave? How do the anxiety and fear in our lives betray our own disbelief? How can we not be fearful and anxious when we consider the shootings at churches, synagogues, and mosques? How can we not have doubts when we consider natural disasters – floods, tournedos, earthquakes? How can we not be anxious when there is talk of building walls along our border, as we recall the Berlin Wall and the wall in Bethlehem? Have we retreated behind locked doors out of fear or doubt or confusion?
Through the series of responses by the disciples to the reality of Easter, we discover that believing is neither a matter of physical proofs nor having our conditions met. Likewise, believing is not simply a matter of seeing but transcends seeing, as Jesus’ comment to Thomas makes clear: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John’s Gospel shows us that there are different kinds of faith, and that faith comes in different ways and with differing intensities to different people. The beloved disciple believes upon seeing the empty tomb (v. 8). Mary believes when the Lord calls her name (v. 16). The disciples must see the risen Lord (v. 20). Thomas says that he must touch Jesus’ wounds (v. 25)—although that need seems to evaporate once he sees the risen Christ (v. 28). People have differing needs and find various routes to faith.
Ultimately, the appropriate response to the reality of Easter involves being transformed by the Word, the Word which in John is Jesus incarnate (1:14), Jesus crucified (20:20, 27), and Jesus, one with the Father (20:28). It is through the Risen Christ that we are brought to faith.
The promise of this text is that Jesus cannot be stopped by our locked doors. Jesus comes to us as he came to the first disciples, right in the midst of our fear, pain, doubt, and confusion. He comes speaking peace, breathing into our often anxious lives the breath of the Holy Spirit.
What is more, he keeps showing up. As he came back a week later for Thomas, Jesus keeps coming back week after week among his gathered disciples — in the word, the water, the bread, and the wine — not wanting anyone to miss out on the life and peace he gives. And he keeps sending us out of our safe, locked rooms, into a world that, like us, so desperately needs his gifts of life, love, and peace; into a world where our faith witnesses to the love of God through the resurrection of His Son.